Like me, I’m sure many of you were startled to hear Gov. Sam Brownback’s acknowledgment that he and other state and local officials are exploring the possibility of constructing an airport in Johnson County to rival KCI.
Not that this was the first mention of that prospect because Steve Rose wrote in The Star back in December about the prospect of Johnson County capitalizing on Kansas City’s foot-dragging.
But Sunday’s top-of-the-front-page story by Steve Vockrodt marked the first time anyone in official capacity in Kansas, much less the governor, has officially said, in so many words, “We want in the game.”
Now, this could be a Brownback trick to divert people’s attention from the state’s spectacular fiscal problems — which Brownback and the Kansas Legislature triggered in 2012 by reducing income tax rates for all Kansans and eliminating the income tax for 330,000 LLCs. But even if that’s all it is, it has to be jarring to many Kansas Citians, who may have thought they had all the time in the world to decide on a new terminal at KCI.
Brownback’s latest declaration of “Border War!” is, by far, his most serious, and I hope it gets the attention of the hand-wringing, whining crowd that continually splutters, “But KCI is sooo convenient.”
As I’ve said for two or three years now (I wish you could see the blue hue my face has taken on), Kansas Citians need to get over their rhapsodic enchantment with KCI’s curb-to-bullpen-to-gate fixation. They need to rip the blinders off and consider the importance of Kansas City joining most of the nation’s other major cities in having a first-class airport.
KCI is uncomfortable, ugly, antiquated and falling apart. Just look at the mountain of deteriorating concrete that is Terminal A, which has been closed a couple of years.
I’m hoping Brownback’s foray will add new urgency to the KCI issue for Kansas City residents, who would have to vote to approve a new KCI terminal before revenue bonds could be issued and work could start.
If a close friend’s reaction is any barometer, Brownback just might have snapped some Kansas Citians out of their soporific state. My friend told me today that for him, the matter of a new single terminal had jumped from “back, back burner” to top priority.
Before we go too far, let’s take a closer look at some details about this idea of a big, new Johnson County airport.
Neither Vockrodt nor the officials he quoted in his story offered any hints as to possible sites. The fact is, starting from scratch would probably be cost prohibitive. A new terminal — a terminal on the scale of what Kansas City has been discussing — could cost $1 billion or more. Then, of course, you need runways. The minimum length needed for runways that can accommodate large aircraft is about 8,000 feet. Such runways cost well over $1 billion each.
(In doing research for this story, I came across an account of a military runway that was rebuilt on the cheap: It started showing serious damage almost immediately upon reopening and soon had to be torn out and replaced. The problem? The winning concrete contractor had plenty of experience with concrete…but most of it was in pouring home patios.)
Given the costs cited above, there is only one logical site for a “new” Johnson County airport, and that is the old Olathe Naval Air Station, 167th Street and I-35, near Gardner. Johnson County acquired the air station in 1973 and renamed it Johnson County Industrial Airport. The name was changed to New Century AirCenter in 1994, and all Navy activities ceased two years later.
NewCentury’s biggest advantage is it has two existing runways — one 5,130 feet long and the other 7,339 feet. I suppose those could be upgraded and lengthened, but the cost would be significant.
One of the squawking points related to a new, single KCI terminal is its estimated $1 billion price tag. But even with two existing runways, converting NewCentury into a first-class airport rivaling KCI would probably cost at least $2 billion or $3 billion…And for the record, KCI has no runway problems. It has three — two that are 9,500 feet long and one that is 10,801 feet long.
Another consideration is raw space. KCI sits on a plot of more than 10,000 acres. New Century stands on 2,500.
Despite the significant advantages Kansas City has in this nascent border aviation war, history has shown what can happen when one governmental entity fails to move expeditiously and decisively in regard to airport construction.
The history of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport offers what should be a disturbing scenario for Kansas Citians. (I trust you’ve gathered already, from the airport’s name, that this isn’t a happy story for Cincinnati.)
Back in the ’20s and ’30s, the main Cincinnati airport, Lunken, was located in Cincinnati. It was subject to frequent fogging because of its location, however, and then the 1937 Ohio River flood completely submerged the runways and two-story terminal building.
A Wikipedia entry relates what unfolded:
“While federal officials wanted an airfield site that would not be prone to flooding, Cincinnati officials hoped to build Lunken into the premier airport of the region. A coalition of officials from Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Kentucky took advantage of Cincinnati’s short-sightedness and lobbied Congress to build an airfield there. Boone County officials offered a suitable site on the provision that Kenton County paid the acquisition cost. In October 1942, Congress provided $2 million to construct four runways. The field officially opened August 12, 1944…”
And that is why, today, the Greater Cincinnati airport is in northern Kentucky.